Errands

I didn’t get a whole lot done today. I’d planned to spend the day working on a project – I’m designing a website for a friend. This is a new challenge for me, and I’m loving the way it stretches my brain, even though I feel useless and pitiful and old for finding it so dang hard!

But first I had to bitch at my doctor’s office over a prescription snafu, and that led – by a convoluted trail – to a fight over who in the practice was actually my doctor, and then I had to write an impassioned email to the practice manager insisting that they assign me to the doctor I actually like and trust instead of the one who, on the one occasion I saw her, clearly considered me an imbecile who doesn’t know my own body. I wrote it on my phone, held two inches from my nose with one eye screwed shut because all this erupted while I was still in bed and before I’d put my contact lenses in, and then for some reason it was necessary to read the email, compulsively, over and over again, until they called me back and said it was okay, I could have the doctor I wanted.

So then I got up and got dressed and fed the dogs / horses / chickens / and while I was fixing toast and eggs for myself and the Hubbit I had a call from a snotty young asshole at our mortgage company demanding a payment that we’d been told we didn’t need to make, so we’d spent the money on other stuff, like Equine Senior pellets and chemotherapy. He and I circled the conversational drain a few times before he went away and I flung myself (and my eggs and toast) at my computer and wrote my second impassioned email of the day, this time to the person at the mortgage company who had told me we were skipping the payment. (Synopsis: we refinanced. Shit happened.) There followed more obsessive/compulsive rereading, but this time at least I was dressed and able to see.

Roary. I want so much to give this dog a safe place for Christmas.

At last I yanked myself out of that vortex, determined to focus on the website, but first I detoured through my pet rescue’s email inbox, and was emotionally bludgeoned by a desperate appeal for help from someone who has a dog – a middle-aged male pit / mastiff mix – that her daughter rescued after he was left to starve in an abandoned house and then passed along to her when she (the daughter) landed in jail. This woman rescues cats – ferals, which she rehabilitates and rehomes. So far the dog has killed two of them, so the dog is now also in jail. Right now, cats are not being rescued, the dog has lost 15 pounds and has developed an array of stress-related health problems, and the woman is on the verge of a breakdown. She’s tried everyone she knows, she tells me, and no one will help. This is not a surprise; rescues are all in overload. Christmas is when people get a new puppy (and dump the old dog) or go skiing or to Hawaii (and dump the inconvenient dog), and of course this year there are all the covid-companions that are also being dumped because people are going back to work and “don’t have time to give him the attention he deserves.”

Side note: For fuck’s sake, people. If your name isn’t Musk or Bezos, never mind your dog, you’re probably not getting what you “deserve”. You’re quite possibly not even getting what you need. Suck it up, and if you have a dog, figure out how to suck that up too! The single most important thing a dog – or anyone – needs is a place to be, and if you don’t provide that, and the rescues can’t, he has to stop being. It’s that simple.

To stop being – to absorb a few CCs of blue magic and fall asleep: this might be all Roary gets, in the end. I can’t take him; I told her that a week ago, the first time she emailed me. I would if I could, but I have a kitty in my bedroom, and feral cats in the workshop, and chickens. I’m also getting too old and gimpy to cope with an unsocialized, out-of-control 100 lb dog, no matter how sweet he is deep down. And Argos is making it increasingly clear that he is over this rescue schtick of mine.

I called Cujo, who is my rescue partner, to ask if she had any ideas, and she said she couldn’t deal with it, couldn’t think of it – and of course she couldn’t. She’s grieving her sweet, bouncy, wilful, neurotic, beloved pit bull Jilly Bean. Little Bean came to us several years ago when the Animal Control director called to ask for help. She was just a baby – maybe six months old – and already broken and scary. Cujo took her home to rehabilitate her, and when that wasn’t possible she simply loved her and gave her a place to be for as long as possible. But the legacy of bad breeding, apart from behavioral problems, is bad health. She itched, all over and all the time, and after a while medication, special food and baths stopped working. And then her joints began to crumble. She was young and wanted to run and play but her body just couldn’t do it. She was stoical and joyous but life wasn’t good, and the pain began to make her dangerous. Cujo took her to the vet for the last time just a little while ago. I was there, and it was loving and peaceful and terrible, and now Cujo needs time to heal. She cannot be thinking about other people’s dogs.

So I wrote the kindest, most empathetic email I could to the woman, explaining for the second time – but in more detail – why we couldn’t help. I offered to pay for the euthanasia, since even her vet thinks that’s the route she should take if he isn’t placed in a new home soon. I offered to go with her to have him put to sleep, because I know – how well I know! – that it’s a terrible thing to face alone. It’s one thing to euthanize an animal that’s sick and suffering. It’s entirely another when the creature is eager to love and still greedy for life. And then I thought some more about it, and I wrote to our vet just in case she knew of someone who might take him, and I posted the appeal on Facebook with his picture … but I don’t expect anything to come of any of that. People will wring their hands and say how sad it is, but actually do anything? No, not too likely.

After that, I cried for a while, and by the time that was done it was too late to be thinking about websites. It was getting dark. I had errands to run, some of them urgent. I called Argos, and we took off together.

We went to the post office, where I picked up boxes to mail Christmas cakes – two to friends, and one to the guy who rescued me a few weeks ago. Dropped off a Christmas cake, newly baptized in brandy, with friends who foster a litter or two of puppies for us every year, thereby keeping our little rescue solvent. Went to the feed store, where I picked up several bags of the special old-horse-pellets we give Vos and Garcia, because Vos is now 30 years old and can’t chew enough hay to keep nourished, and Garcia is getting to the age where he needs a bit of nutritional support come winter.

From there we headed across town to Petco. I went into autopilot and turned right, to the dog toy section, and stopped for a while and stared at all the toys. Rubber ones, and fabric ones. Ones that you can tug and shake. Bouncy ones. Fluffy ones. The kind she loved best – squeaky ones.

I realized I could buy any I wanted and be confident that they’d last. Because the small, bright-eyed, prick-eared, black-and-white person who used to dismantle every fluffy or squeaky toy I ever brought home, no matter how careful I was to keep them out of her reach, isn’t here any more.

I didn’t want to cry in Petco.

Boudicca. In winter, my personal nighttime neckwarmer. In summer, the terror of small wild furry things.

I backed away from the toys. Took Argos to his favorite area – where the animals are. It wasn’t too interesting; the chinchilla was hiding and the ferrets were asleep, and he was kinda meh about the mice and birds, although he clacked his teeth at the parrot and the parrot snapped its beak back at him, so I guess there was some sort of inter-species communication there. Anyway, we went and got the cat litter we were there for – the clumping kind for the barn cats, and the pellets made of recycled newsprint for Boudicca.

I loaded it onto the front passenger seat, on top of the soft, bright blanket that’s been there since her last ride to the vet. I ignored the blanket, and also the box of canned dog food in the footwell in front of the seat, as I have every time I’ve used the car in the past week. We went to Yokes, a grocery store, where I picked up veggies, and a random assortment of suppery things from the deli counter, and chocolate chips so I can make a batch of brownies as a thank you for the neighbor who is coming over tomorrow with his backhoe.

I so very badly do not want to think about this! Forgive me, please, for sneaking it in under a to-do list of errands and other nonsense. I needed to bury it somehow.

But … she deserves better. So here it is: a short In Memoriam for a small dog who has left the most enormous hole.

Patchee

Patchee came to us about ten years ago. She was only a year old, if that, when the local animal control director called and asked the Hubbit and me to take her in, because the dog rescue we’d started was becoming known as a place to take dogs with behavioral issues. “There really isn’t anything wrong with this dog,” the director told us, “But legally I can’t rehome her. I have to euthanize her unless a rescue agrees to rehabilitate her. And it wouldn’t be right to put her down. She’s a perfectly normal dog, and she’s too young!”

She’d been adopted from the pound by someone who wanted a cute puppy, and who thought a heeler mix would do just fine cooped up in an apartment while the woman – a lawyer – was at work twelve hours a day. The woman was most put out when her sweet little puppy took to dismantling cushions, the couch, and anything else she could get her teeth into. Then the woman invited her friends over, and – so disconcerting – the Heeler nipped at their heels, herding them around and then out of the apartment. So the woman took her back to the pound, and in an effort to excuse herself she said the words that amounted to a death warrant: “She tries to bite my friends. I think she’s potentially dangerous.”

Well, of course we took her in, and she was with us for quite a while – at least a year. People applied to adopt her, but while other dogs came and went she stayed. She had attached herself to the Hubbit, and she disdained anyone else’s overtures. Eventually a family came to meet her – an older couple and the four teenage grandsons they were raising. To our great surprise, Patchee welcomed them. The grandsons threw balls, and she loved fetching balls, and that was really all it took. So they took her away, and as they rolled down the driveway Jim broke down and said, “I think I’ve just made a huge mistake.”

Mistake or not, we had to live with it, and so he did – but he set her picture as the wallpaper on his cell phone and carried her next to his heart, and a couple times when we were near the town she had moved to he drove past the house, hoping to see her. We never did.

Eighteen months later they called us. They told us they’d adopted another dog, from a shelter in a different town. They’d chosen that dog because it looked like Patchee and they’d thought it would be cute to have a matching pair, but they weren’t working out. Patchee had started having accidents in the house, and was scared to go outside. Frankly, it all sounded a little weird. So we told them to bring her back.

“No, no!” they said. “We love Patchee – we want to keep her. But we don’t want to take the other dog back to the shelter. We were hoping you’d take her and find her a home.”

“Nope,” I said. “Sounds like Patchee has a problem. We’re responsible for fixing it. Please bring her back.” So, reluctantly, they did. They completed paperwork to transfer her to us. Just before they signed they started to pull back and I thrust it at them. “This is the right decision,” I said, and stared them down. I was implacable. Looking back, I can’t remember why … I just knew something wasn’t okay and we needed to take our girl back. I don’t know what had really happened to her while she was with them. I don’t know what happened to the other dog. Maybe they kept her, maybe not. Maybe she was okay. They’d said she was fine.

Patchee was not fine. For several days she was utterly shut down – barely eating, barely sleeping, just curled in a tight ball, refusing to make eye contact. Then one day the Hubbit and I were sitting quietly near her and chatting, and he … I don’t know what he did. Maybe he laughed, or maybe he used a phrase that triggered a memory. I just remember that suddenly she raised her head and looked at him. Stood up, went to him, and “Oh!” she said, with her whole body. “There you are!” And she began to heal.

She started following him around the farm. Curling up close by in his study. Playing fetch. Dismantling toys to find the squeak. Sleeping between us on the bed. She changed toward me too – decided I was maybe a little more than the person who fed her and threw the ball; I began to get my small allotment of snuggles and “Good morning” rrroooo-rrahhhs. She even decided she liked a few of our friends.

And that was pretty much the sum total of her life until a few months ago. She didn’t do anything extraordinary … She rolled in cow manure in spring and turned green. She chased the ball. She went down to the river a few times, and sometimes rode along when the Hubbit went out on errands. She found the squeaker in every squeaky toy, and pulled stuffing out of anything stuffed. She hung out with the Hubbit. She was happy.

A few months ago I took her to the vet for her senior wellness exam, and after a couple of tests they diagnosed early stage kidney failure and an inoperable tumor in her bladder. This was our second case of kidney failure this year … the Hubbit’s other little princess, Ntombi, died last April barely two months after her diagnosis. And when she got sick we were sad and worried, and I turned myself inside-out trying to feed her home-cooked meals suitable for failing kidneys, and when we had to let her go because she was simply fading away we were sad – of course we were.

Ntombi – our first death row rescue. She was just a puppy in 2007, scheduled to die because there was no room at the pound.

But she was an old dog, and old dogs die. It’s what you expect. One of the things that may carry them off is kidney failure. So when we got Patchee’s diagnosis I was sad, but she was eleven – not old old, but old enough. The tumor worried me, but I figured we’d just keep things going as long as we could and help her go when we had to.

The Hubbit didn’t react that way. “We need to fight this. I’m not ready to lose her,” he said. So we went back to the vet to discuss our options, and the vet suggested we take her to the oncology department at Washington State University vet school.

The thing about refinancing a mortgage is, you get a month, or occasionally two months, of grace during which you don’t have to make a payment. There’s the final payment to your original mortgage holder, and then you get whatever is left in your escrow account, and a month (or two) of no mortgage payment before payments to the new mortgage holder kick in.

The vet at WSU said a course of chemo might help her. It wouldn’t cure the cancer, she warned, but it might give her some time – quality time, with just a few tough days after each treatment. We would have to take her in every three weeks, and she’d need to have a blood test done at our local vet a week after each treatment, and sometimes other tests. She’d have to stay on the special kidney diet as well, and she’d be on daily medications. All this added up to a wild number of dollars. But … we could do it. So we did.

The first treatment was amazing. She could pee again! She’d squat and pee would come out – a bit reddish, but they told us that was a normal side-effect of the chemo – and in no time she’d be done and bouncing off to do something more interesting. Her appetite recovered a few days after the treatment, her tail went up, her rrroooo-rrahhhs came at full volume. She fetched the ball and hung out with the Hubbit and life was good.

By the time the second treatment rolled around, peeing was difficult again. It was slow, and she sometimes had to walk around a while to get herself into exactly the right position to make anything come out. We looked forward to another improvement after that treatment, but there was none, and there was no improvement after the third treatment either, and by then it was difficult to get her to eat even after she’d had time to recover from the chemo. We abandoned the special kidney diet – it was becoming clear that she wouldn’t be around long enough to die of kidney failure – and I spent hours picking at chicken breast, breaking the flesh into fragments, mashing them into rice that had been cooked in chicken broth. I bought canned dog food that smelled so yummy it drove the rest of the pack crazy with envy, and the Hubbit tempted her with bits and pieces off his plate. She developed a bladder infection and was on an antibiotic, so I loaded up a large syringe with Greek yogurt twice a day and forced her to take it. She developed diarrhea, so I made her eat canned pumpkin, pushing it far back into her mouth with my thumb and holding her muzzle so she couldn’t spit it out. The rest of the time – when she wasn’t peeing one tiny drip at a time, or grimacing at the thought of food, she was as she always had been – watching over the Hubbit out in the pasture, in his workshop, while he was at his computer. She loved him, and she loved her life.

Three weeks ago I took her for her fourth treatment. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive to WSU, and I welcomed the respite from everyday life. I left around dawn to be there in time for her 9.00AM appointment, listening to Stephen King’s “It” on an audiobook, on time for once, no need to rush, loving the easy highway through the unfurling hills of the Palouse. I was in our new pickup, Argos on the back seat and Patchee, snug in the colorful fleece jacket Cujo made her, curled up on her blanket on the passenger seat beside me. The sun had been up for a while as I rounded a curve, loving the sparkle of the thin layer of ice on the roadway, taking it slow.

The quiet beauty of the Palouse

And then I was spinning and time shifted into slow-motion. I checked the dogs, and they were fine. I remembered not to slam the brakes because that would make the skid harder to control. I checked the road and was relieved to see no traffic. I steered into the spin. My foot hovering over the brake, I waited to regain control, but that didn’t happen. I looked at the barricade as I was carried inexorably toward it – it looked just so flimsy, and I studied the way the hillside sloped down into the valley below the road, and I wondered whether I’d be able to keep the pickup upright when we smashed through the barricade and slammed downward. I figured the truck was probably going to roll, and I thought, “Okay, so maybe this is how death happens for me. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much.” I hoped the dogs would be okay, and not run off and be lost and starve in those lonely hills. I felt the pickup slam into the barricade – a solid thump, and the barricade held and we were sliding and spinning back across into the left lane, still no oncoming traffic, and I think it was around about then that I started carefully pumping the brake, still steering into the spin as best I could, and the wheels bit into gravel at the edge of the road, and at last. We. Stopped.

I guess the whole thing took less than a minute, but it lasted half a lifetime. I guess I must have hit a puddle of black ice, not yet melted although the sun had been up for at least an hour along that stretch of roadway. I’ve since learned that because the cruise control was on, when the wheels hit ice and lost friction they automatically accelerated, and of course until I tapped the brake the cruise control kept the pickup moving. So obvious … I was waiting for it to slow down, and it couldn’t – not until I deactivated the cruise control by braking. And I hesitated to brake, because I didn’t want to make the skid worse. So … a lesson for any who don’t know: don’t use cruise control in potentially icy conditions.

It wasn’t long before a car came along and pulled over, and a young man asked if I needed help. He loaned me his cell phone to call the Hubbit (mine wasn’t picking up a signal), and then he took me and the dogs to WSU. There was another accident a little further along the highway but he said he’d grown up in the area and preferred using the more scenic back routes anyway, and took off along a dirt road that wound through the hills. It was very pretty, but I spent most of the drive thinking how ironic it would be to have survived the accident only to be done in by a serial killer, and wondering whether the Hubbit would be able to find the dogs. (Spoiler alert: I’m still here.)

And then … we were at the vet school, and back inside the painful reality of regular life. A vet student came and took Patchee to have an ultrasound. Argos and I made camp in the lobby with the pile of blankets and my Kindle and other random crap that I’d thought I needed to pull from the pickup. After a while the Cool Dude, the Hubbit’s friend who lives in a motorhome parked next to our house, arrived to take us home. He’d left the Hubbit to figure out how to get the pickup back to the farm. We hung around and waited, and eventually the vet emerged and told me that Patchee’s tumor was still growing, and she wanted to try a different chemotherapy drug, and a course of radiation therapy to start in a few weeks. I said okay to the chemo, and agreed to discuss radiation with the Hubbit. At last the day was over and we loaded up in the Cool Dude’s car and drove home.

She loved when I snuggled her up into one of the jackets Cujo made her. She didn’t like being cold! But then after a few days she’d go out and scrape it off wriggling through a pasture fence, and the Hubbit would have to go looking.

We hoped, so very much, that this new chemo drug would work – that she’d at least be able to pee easy again. But … no. Mostly she leaked. She was scheduled for her fifth chemo treatment this week.

Last week, on Wednesday morning, I noticed she was passing blood – not just bloody urine, which was somewhat normal, but actual blood. I called the vet, and they said to take her in and they’d check her out in between appointments and call when they knew something. A couple hours later they called me, and I told the Hubbit he needed to go and be with her. It was time to let her go.

We don’t know for sure without a necropsy, but we think the tumor blocked her urethra, or maybe it just got too big, and her bladder ruptured. The extraordinary thing is that she still sang a song of joy to the Hubbit that morning, and she glommed down half her breakfast a few hours later, and she was … just … happy to be alive, hanging out with the Hubbit, doing her thing. She wasn’t afraid, and she didn’t complain that she was hurting.

The Hubbit brought her home in a little cardboard coffin the vet provided, still wearing the bright jacket that can no longer warm her. He put her in the big chest freezer we keep in the workshop. He insisted that he and the Cool Dude would dig her grave, but they’re both gimped up and I need her not to be in the freezer any more, so a couple days ago he agreed to ask our neighbor for help.

Tomorrow morning I’ll get up early and make him a batch of brownies. He’s coming with his backhoe at 10:00AM, and it won’t take long.

At 11.00AM a woman is arriving with a little freaked-out Mini-Aussie who needs a place to be and someone to teach her how to stop biting and be happy.

On Sunday I’m meeting with someone who needs me to do write something for her.

On Monday I’m working on that website.

Sometimes life spins out of control, and sometimes it’s in slow-mo, and sometimes both happen at once. You have to drive into the spin, tap the brake lightly, and hope the barricade will hold. Usually it does.

Gaps in the fence

The other day I was driving home when our neighbor’s wife called to say her husband had died. We didn’t know them well. I’d only ever spoken to the wife over the telephone, though I knew him to say hello or wave. He and the Hubbit were friendly; they’d call on each other for help as needed – to borrow tools or equipment, or work together on some or other repair. For a while we took care of their pasture in return for grazing our cattle there. More than once he zipped over in his golf cart to help us chase down a runaway steer.

Somehow I never got around to inviting them over to barbecue, and we had no idea that he’d been diagnosed with throat cancer in February.  When I got home I told the Hubbit the news and he was dismayed. “Well, dang!” he said. “I’ve been thinking I should go over and visit, but…”

A few weeks ago I learned that my Aunt Marietjie had died. She was in her nineties and I knew she’d become frail, but the last time I saw her – just a few years ago at Marmeee’s memorial service – she was as I’d always known her: calm, unfalteringly kind, resolute. We weren’t close; I didn’t see her that often and in the 23 years since I moved to the US we’ve never corresponded … but when I named this blog it was with her in mind, because she was someone I kinda wanted to be like – strong, unflappable, salt-of-the-earth, a woman of strong faith and stronger Scrabble skills, a quiet source of wisdom and comfort food.

My father, the Olde Buzzard, used to refer to her as a soustannie, and it was only after I named this blog that I learned that the word didn’t mean an intelligent, powerful woman with excellent culinary skills. It’s not a compliment. It means someone who is female, fat and bossy. Well, some might say that makes it a fine name for my blog …. Oh well. [Insert shrug emoji here.]

Moment of truth: the Olde Buzzard was intimidated by strong women, and that made him mean. He had uncomplimentary nicknames for me too. He died a few years ago, and … well, all I want to say is, I’m grateful that in the end I was able to do my duty, to treat him with love and kindness, and that everything needing to be said and done between us was indeed said and done.

Getting back to Marietjie … I thought of changing the name of this blog, but decided instead to stay with the image I’d originally had in mind – an image largely inspired by this aunt, whom I am not at all like, yet who was extraordinarily kind to me at random intervals throughout my life. She was the one person I could trust to love my Girl Child when she needed it and wouldn’t accept it from me. I always meant to write to her care of my cousin, but…

Some years ago I wrote a post that won a response from a different cousin, from the other side of the family. I replied, but he never commented again. But from then on, every time I wrote about dogs, a small part of me wrote for him, because I grew up hearing stories about his extraordinary ability to connect with animals.

I grew up loving him.

I have many cousins and I’ve had crushes on several of them, but Michael was special. He was so handsome, tan and blue-eyed and blonde, with ruggedly regular features and a smile that reached out and pulled you in. When he invited me up onto his lap and taught me how to tell the time on his big wristwatch, he made my four-year-old heart flutter. I was convinced I would marry him, and I was devastated when he married someone else.

The Old Buzzard had adored my cousin – they were close in age – and he disliked the wife, and now I realize that she’s probably strong and intelligent as well as being “a damn liberal who thinks we aren’t good enough”. Back then, viewing her through the distorted lens of his resentment, I couldn’t warm to her. But I spent a month with them, while I was a university student with a vacation job in their city, and I remember she was kind, and their home was beautiful, and they seemed happy. (Who wouldn’t be happy with Michael?) I remember that she collected silver, so at the end of the visit I spent almost everything I’d earned on some too large and probably tacky addition to her collection because I needed to prove that I’d been raised right. I remember I fell and sprained my ankle getting off the bus, and Michael – who was a successful vet by then – bound it up. When I complained that he hurt me, he laughed at me for making more fuss than a dog with far worse injuries. But I forgave him because he still made my teenage heart flutter.

After I got that message from him on my long-ago blog post, whenever I wrote about dogs and hoped for another message I thought about making contact. I imagined going to see him on my next trip to South Africa. And then a couple months ago I heard that he’d died. Hoping for more detail I looked at his sister Midge’s Facebook page – and that’s when I learned that her daughter had just died – a beautiful, bright, happy woman that I’d never met, barely knew existed, just gone. There are wedding photos on Midge’s Facebook page, and she shines. I wept over them for several days – I don’t know why the loss felt so agonizing; I didn’t know her! And then I tried to write to Midge, but…

Then I got a message on my last post, from Michael’s wife, reaching out, and that’s when I learned that he’d actually died long before I heard about it – last January, of covid – such a horrible, horrible way to go! And I wanted to write to her, but what to say? Where to send it? We’re not even connected through Facebook – which I rarely visit anyway. It’s not that I can’t figure this out – and I will – but…

But I want a do-over. I want a neighborhood barbecue, and after that maybe conversations and coffee with a few new friends.

I want to talk to Michael and his wife, and see her with my own clear eyes. I don’t know what we’d talk about … dogs, probably, but what else? I want to know!

I want another game of Scrabble with Marietjie, with a plate of koeksisters and big mugs of rooibos tea. And I want to walk on the beach and then loll about comfortably and talk about cats with my cousin, her daughter, who is still this side of the dirt but on the far side of the planet.

I want to hug Midge, and meet her daughter, and maybe be invited to the wedding, or at least send a gift. And I want to meet her niece, my goddaughter, whose parents thought it would be cute to make 12-year-old me a godmother, since they didn’t take such things seriously, only I wish I had. And actually I’d like to see her parents again too.

And then there’s the other cousin who used to look so hot in his SA Airforce uniform, and his brother who was in a quite popular band and then became a DJ. They used to tease me, and one time I played in their mother’s cactus garden and ended up sprawled over my mother’s lap, butt exposed to the sunshine and their gleeful mockery, while I shrieked my outrage and she picked out tiny needles with a pair of tweezers. Those cousins are still alive, as far as I know, round the other side of the planet, and one day it’ll be too late for a do-over, but right now I have no idea what to do about that. We had a friendship – the DJ cousin and I did, anyway – and then it fizzled and we drifted and … truth be told, there’s probably no way back. None on my map, anyway.

I have cousins scattered all over the world, and others – nieces and a nephew, second cousins – so many people that I love or have loved or wish I’d loved. And although I know I don’t have the capacity to reconnect deeply with all of them – or even with more than a very few – being strangers just feels wrong.

And then there are friends. Like Deej. I want to sit with Deej and lay out all my questions about God and ask him how he, one of the finest and fiercest champions of Christ I ever knew, could possibly think well of Donald Trump. I actually tried to ask him that, via WhatsApp, but he didn’t answer, and over time he ghosted me. That stung, because he was my pastor more than anyone else ever was or will be, and I want to look him in the eye and ask why he wounded me. But I can’t, because he’s gone, and there are no do-overs. He died last December, a week shy of his eightieth birthday, leaving me still burdened with so many questions and no one else I’d entrust them to.

I ache every day to go on a road trip with Twiglet, the sister my heart gave me. Talking on WhatsApp doesn’t cut it, especially as her connection is so bad that usually I just listen to her voice; it’s impossible really to follow what she’s saying. I want a cream tea with Luscious. I want to talk about God and poetry with Fair Bianca. I am homesick for the friends of my young womanhood!

I want to kick back and laugh with the Kat, and talk deep talks with the Egg and Homeboy, and argue face-to-face with the Girl Child instead of getting mad and frustrated over WhatsApp. I want to laugh and talk and eat with my foster kids, and watch the granddaughters they gave me grow up, and be there to love them through it when their mothers make them angry, and go to their weddings and cuddle their babies – or not, if they choose a different road. But they’re all, all on the wrong side of the planet.

I want to find a way back to the Stranger, but I don’t think there is one, and the meeting place where I’d hope to find him might not even exist.

I remember my blessings. Here I have friends, a few anyway, some quite elderly, and a Hubbit ditto, that I love as best I can – although never enough. I have neighbors that I may invite to barbecue next summer.

I’ve been thinking that the people we touch are like fenceposts. They enclose the fields where we grow our lives.

I look at my fence, and there are gaps in it. It’s been standing a while and has reached that stage in the life of a fence that gaps form more and more frequently. Some of the timbers are broken, others are weathered and warped and working loose, and many are out of my reach. Beyond the fence I see the wilderness pressing in.

I’m not afraid of the wilderness. Often I’m drawn to it … I stand next to the fence and imagine what it would be like to push through and see what’s out there. Then I remember that I have work still to do on this side and I turn back.

But it troubles me sometimes to think that one day the gate in the fence may open, and it won’t matter because the fence itself will be down. I’ll walk through, as one must, but I wonder who will know.

Photos by Denise Karis and Foto Maak on Unsplash

So long, sweet and crazy

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My beautiful girl left us tonight.

Destra came to us as a five month old puppy who needed a safe place to recuperate after breaking her leg. She’d been in the very early stages of training for a career with the police or military when she broke her leg while playing with her trainer. The trainer was going to have her euthanized but a rescue stepped in and arranged for her to have surgery. After a month of crate rest they asked us to take her in for a month of R&R while she finished her recovery.

A few days after she arrived we started seeing bloody footprints all over the house. It took a while to figure out who had been injured – she wasn’t limping, because either the initial accident or the surgery had damaged the nerves in her leg and she couldn’t feel anything. By the time we figured it out, she’d run the pads right off her foot.

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Nine long months of fighting infection followed. Every morning I’d throw a blanket over my dining table and she’d jump up onto it and flop over onto her side with a sigh of resignation, and I’d clean and treat and dress her foot, and then all day she’d fuss and beg to be let out to play with the big dogs. I tried to keep her occupied with games and toys; she loved “packaged meals” – I’d wrap up her kibble, a few bits at a time, in layer after layer of newspaper, each layer thoroughly duct taped, and she’d get to spend a glorious fifteen minutes shredding her way through it. But every few days she’d sneak out, or brazenly break out, and go running in the pastures with the big dogs, and come back with her tongue lolling with joy and her paw bloody. Sometimes she ran it clear down to the bone.

So of course she developed a bone infection, and it didn’t get better no matter what remedies I tried – and I tried everything from a poultice of raw honey to various creams and unguents the vet recommended, in addition to pills that had to be rammed down her throat because she never, ever, ever consented to swallow them, no matter how deliciously disguised or carefully wrapped. She’d nibble off the tasty stuff and spit the pill on the floor. The vet recommended amputation. The rescue that had been providing for her care cut off funding; they said it was time to euthanize. We didn’t have the money for surgery, but we found another rescue that did.

Her amputation surgery was scheduled for a Thursday afternoon. I called the next morning. “So … how is she doing? May I visit her? Maybe bring her something to chew?” She loved to chew almost as much as she loved to run. They said I could, and on my way in I stopped at our local butcher. It was late fall, the time of year when butchers are usually very busy cutting and wrapping farm raised beef, but they didn’t yet have ours. I rushed inside and demanded to speak with him. “My dog just had her let amputated and she needs a really big bone!” I informed him, and after only the briefest pause for bewilderment he gave me the biggest, juiciest, meatiest bone I ever saw.

At the vet I sat in the little consulting room, waiting for them to wheel her in on a trolley (they’d warned me, before the surgery, that she might need help learning to walk). Well, she’d heard my voice and came barreling through the door, dragging the vet tech behind her, and flung herself joyously into my lap. They told me they’d knocked her out after the surgery, wanting her to have a good night’s sleep, but when they’d come in that morning she’d been standing up on her one remaining hind leg, tail wagging, waiting to hear what fun was planned for that day.

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She spent the weekend at the vet, working her way through that bone, and by Sunday afternoon she was well and truly ready to come home. We pulled up at the gate at the end of our long driveway. One of her favorite tricks before the surgery had been to jump out of the car and take off up the driveway, her feet hammering the gravel and ripping her pads to shreds. She’d always got into trouble for that. But as I pulled through the gate I asked her, “You want to run?” She looked at me, not quite believing. “Go on. Run!” I said.

She leaped out of the car and took off up the driveway, and she didn’t care one iota that she had only one hind leg to hammer. That was my girl … Her focus was always on what was in front of her. Hind legs? They were history, and she paid them no mind.

We were still planning to give her up for adoption. I loved her, but even with only three legs she was capable of so much in terms of training – and I was so taken up by rescue that I didn’t have the time to give her what I felt she needed. But then she let us know that she really didn’t like kids – she said they were creepy, stunted and weird, and needed to be bitten. The Malinois rescue that had taken her on had a zero tolerance policy for aggression – and rightly so; Mals can be dangerous. So we kept her; we don’t often have kids visit, and after a few years she decided maybe they were okay after all and the issue went away.

She remained a complete lunatic – really smart, quick to learn how to please, even quicker to learn how to get away with murder. She slaughtered a couple of my goat kids and numerous chickens. She shrieked with excitement, bossed the other dogs, made me laugh every day, and drove the Hubbit crazy.

I wish I’d done more with her. I think she’d have enjoyed being challenged more. But life was good all the same … For most of her life she went everywhere with me, and right up to a few weeks ago she loved going to the river. She loved to swim.

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Over the years, inevitably, she slowed down. Her forequarters, which did most of the work when she ran, grew big while her hindquarters became skinny. Her spine twisted into an S-curve. She needed heavy doses of medication to manage the pain of arthritis. She still liked riding along but needed help getting into the car, and being in unfamiliar places began to bother her. She shared car-dog duties with Argos, and increasingly was content to be left at home.

The vet found a lump on her throat, an inoperable tumor, probably thyroid cancer, about a year ago. It didn’t seem to slow her down, though – no more than she was already slowing down just from being old and achy. We’ve been monitoring her health; last time she had blood work it looked pretty good, and she was due to go in for another test around about now. She collapsed a few weeks ago and I thought then that she was on her way to the Rainbow Bridge, but she rallied and has been her usual self – bossy and impatient with the other dogs, but eager to eat, play, get loves, ride in the car,

She went down this evening, though, and an hour later she was gone. She’s on her cushion near me as I write this. I look at her every now and then, and even though I know she’s gone, it’s hard to believe she really isn’t breathing. I stare at her ribs and they seem to move. I know I’m just imagining it, but all the same when the Hubbit suggested moving her outside for the night I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her out in the cold.

Tomorrow we’ll bury her in the yard in front of the house, and in spring I’ll plant a tree on her grave.

And that’s all there is to say about that, really. I feel this post hasn’t done her justice. I’ve spilled out a whole lot of words and, in the end, they don’t say much. I haven’t told you how soft her coat was, or how intensely alive she was, or how maddeningly shrill her bark was, or how funny and smart she was, or how totally she didn’t give a shit about being a tripod. I haven’t described how, when I took her and Argos to the park and threw the ball, I’d have to keep her on a leash so she didn’t hurt herself trying to beat him to it, and every now and then I’d make him sit/stay and toss the ball close by so she could have a turn without hurting herself. She would never bring the ball back to me and if ever I tried to take it from her she’d be so excited I’d get bitten, so I learned to wait until she decided where to drop it, and then Argos would fetch it. And when she was tired she’d take the ball back to the car, and that was the end of our outing to the park.

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I guess that’s what happened this evening. She got tired, so she grabbed the piece of my heart I threw for her and she’s taken it to the Bridge. I’ll get it back one day, but there’s no hurry. It’s hers, after all.

Please talk to me. There’s no easy way to lose a friend, but sometimes shared stories help.

Marmeee’s Day

The memories come like random pricks and stabs during the first year. First Washington summer without her. (I used to send her half-brags about our increasingly high temperatures, and she’d moan about being cold.) First South African spring without a picture of her hoya, its soft pink clashing with our garish autumn oranges and yellows. First snowfall – she so enjoyed the snow, the year they stayed with us. First Christmas. She missed her 83rd birthday, and my 59th, and their 60th wedding anniversary.

And, today, the first Mother’s Day, coinciding with the first anniversary of her death. It seemed like a cruel coincidence, but then I got to thinking about her, and about Mother’s Days with her, and other celebrations, and I couldn’t stay sad.

I’ve always loved eating in bed. I’m not at all sure she felt the same way – she was one to get up and grab hold of the day – but every Mother’s Day and birthday I insisted on giving her breakfast in bed, and it never crossed my mind that this wasn’t the best treat in the world. She wasn’t allowed out of bed until it arrived, typically several hours after her normal wake-up time. No, she had to relax, enjoy the lie-in, of course not make her own tea! What an idea! I guess she learned to listen for me stirring awake so that she could quickly hide the evidence of that essential first cup of the day, and jump back into bed before I tottered down the passage to check on her.

I don’t know what age I was when I started this tradition, but I do remember my favorite meal, which we quite often had for Sunday supper. It was easy to make, and so delicious that it was the obvious choice for any special occasion. For several years, every single Mother’s Day and birthday, I fixed it for her, and then I’d sit at the end of the bed, beaming with pride, and watch her eat every … single … mouthful. It never crossed my mind that (cold, mashed) sardines on (cold, leathery) toast might not be her favorite way to start the day.

After a few years I graduated to cooking eggs, and I rallied my younger siblings to help prepare the ultimate breakfast tray. We prepared every breakfast in the same way. First, we made and buttered the toast. (It was a while ago, but I think buttering it was the Stranger’s job.) Then, while the toast waited on a cold plate, I fried the eggs. Lastly I boiled water, heated the teapot, and made tea. We laid this all out on the tray and paraded to the bedroom, the Egg toddling in last of all with a flower in a vase.

She ate every cold, greasy mouthful of those breakfasts too, washing them down with gulps of mercifully hot tea.

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The flowers on the left are from me. You can tell by the pink carnation.

I grew old enough to have my own money and go shopping alone, and breakfast in bed gave way to bunches of pink carnations. I’m pretty sure she didn’t particularly like carnations but she got them anyway, and when the Girl Child was born, that’s what she sent me.

Those carnations arrived while I was still in the nursing home. She followed them a few days later, having flown from Johannesburg to Cape Town to help us get settled into the house baby Girl Child and I shared with three other girls and a total of six dogs. I learned later that she’d had to throw quite the tantrum to be allowed to come… The Old Buzzard wasn’t pleased to have grandfatherhood unceremoniously thrust upon him. It wasn’t the first time she’d set herself as a small, determined buffer between him and me, however, and she got her way. I, of course, was oblivious to the fuss, aware only of the tremendous comfort of her presence, reassuring me – in the face of all probability and in defiance of her private fears – that I’d be fine, that I’d be a good mother, that everything would be okay.

Every afternoon while she stayed with us in Muizenberg she announced that she needed some alone time, and was going for a walk. I would generously encourage her to take the dogs along for company. It was years before I fully comprehended her indifference to dogs. She never said a word in argument – just leashed up all six and bobbed in their wake down Ventnor Road and to Sunrise Beach, like a small, anxiously squeaking balloon.

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Sunrise Beach, Muizenberg

Oh Marmeee … you left such a rich trove of memories! I love to dig through them, fingering, admiring and sorting them the way I used to play with your big tin of buttons, lying on the carpet next to you while you sewed. You were sewing and I was lying on the carpet, a band of sunlight across my back, when I discovered that I could read without moving my lips. Another time, you sat sewing on a chair in my bedroom, while I was in bed with yellow jaundice, and you told me about sex. You were embarrassed, and I was appalled; I’d thought the girls at school were joking!

She sewed a lot. Was that necessity, or did she actually enjoy it? Dresses for me – those damn Butterick princess line dresses that I hated, but she said they were slimming. I wanted flared skirts, circular skirts, in gaudy parrot colors, and at last she gave in and made them for me, and never said they made me look fat. Later she made me caftans; they make me look like a ship in full sail, and I love them and wear them every hot summer day.

Her home felt like a sanctuary, even when money was short, and especially when the Old Buzzard was tearing it apart in order to put it together again. One year she made light shades, one out of papier-mâché and another out of string and flour paste. She did batik and macramé, she crocheted blankets and made candles. She talked to plants and they grew for her. She expressed a liking for owls and unintentionally acquired a collection.

She sang, not quite as well as her mother but better than I. For years she sang in a choir; as long as I knew her – until cancer stole her breath – she would break into song in supermarkets and in the car and while gardening or cooking and just because. Now I do it. I wonder if the Girl Child does.

She wanted to be an actress, but settled for secretary. This paid off for me in my final year of school, when I took part in an essay contest – 50 typed pages on “The Press – Something-or-other of the People”. As usual I’d procrastinated; three days before deadline I’d completed the first of four sections perfectly, and had nothing else but a collection of notes. The night before it was due, we stayed up all night in her office while I scrawled and dictated and she typed. Every hour or so I’d raid the kitchen for sugary snacks to keep us going. I’ve never read the essay, but it won me a book voucher that I spent on the collected works of TS Eliot, which I have read.

Years ago, as we were getting ready to run away together for a rare few days without the Old Buzzard, she commented how much she was looking forward to some alone time. I hastily assured her that I wouldn’t be getting in her hair – that she mustn’t hesitate to tell me if she needed me to disappear with the Girl Child for a couple hours. “Oh, I don’t mean you,” she scoffed. “Being with you is as good as being alone.” If you get why that’s the best compliment I’ve ever had … well, then, you’re our kind of people.

It’s nearly midnight. Mother’s Day is nearly over. The first year without her … nearly over. And this is what I’ve learned: She isn’t gone. She’s in me. I kill plants and I hate sewing and I’d sooner stick a fork in my eye than learn macramé, but a few minutes ago the Girl Child WhatsApped me a message that began, “Argh I forgot mother’s day! I’m a terrible child” – which is precisely the kind of message I sent to Marmeee any number of times. And I responded with “Hmph”, which is exactly how she would respond to me. And I know with no shadow of doubt that the Girl Child rolled her eyes and laughed, because that is what I would do.

When the perfect way the light drapes itself across the hills makes me catch my breath, when I warble in the supermarket, when I cackle at an absurdity that no one else finds funny, when I just can’t be bothered with makeup, when I’m depressed by my knees my calves my ankles, when I argue with the Hubbit about organic gardening, when my hair grows vertically upward, when I think about God, when I say “Oh FIDDLE-de-dee” or “Bugger it” or “Phooey”, when I see how my footprints in the sand point away from each other … there she is. There she is. She’s there.

Do you have special memories of your mother? I’d love you to share them.

 

The envelope

I don’t know why I wanted – no, didn’t want, absolutely did not want, but needed – to see my mother’s body. It’s not as though her death was a surprise. Although it happened sooner than expected, I was not in denial, I didn’t need proof … and I had a gut-deep dread at the thought of looking at her, facing the oozing reality of death doing its work inside her. I couldn’t shake the fear that she might be swollen, or discolored, or just fundamentally dead-looking. Forgive me for saying this … I imagined she might smell.

I knew these fears were irrational and silly – we of the first world are shielded from the obnoxious aspects of death. It has become sad but pretty. We have a supermarket-sized range of choices as to how we hide the evidence of our mortality, from worm-defying embalming, to composting (my preferred option. Marmeee would have chosen it too, but we’d already cremated her by the time I learned it was possible – and I still don’t know whether it’s done in South Africa).

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Things Marmeee loved: Gardens and gardening and South African native plants. She and her brothers sponsored a bench in Kirstenbosch Garden, in Cape Town, in memory of my grandmother, who used to work there. We – my siblings and I – will put one at Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve, outside Johannesburg, for sitting on while remembering her and the Olde Buzzard. This picture is of the Hoya vine that her mother started from a cutting, and that Marmeee cherished for 50 years.

And yet, despite all logic, the thought of looking at my mother’s dead body filled me with cringing dismay. My resistance was just a little less powerful than the compulsion I felt to see it. I remembered all the stories I’d read or heard of near-death or out-of-body experiences, and imagined her disincorporated self hanging around, waiting for me to come and … what? I don’t know. Pay my final respects?

As I write this I can almost hear the derisive hoot of laughter with which she’d have greeted such an idea. “Your respects?” she’d have exclaimed. “You’ve never been respectful in your life. You call me fubsy!” Which is only partly true. I may have been quite good at concealing my respect for her, but she knew very well it was there. As for fubsy … well, she was, and so am I. It’s a Tookish trait!

Well, I digress. I’d have preferred to get The Viewing over and done with right away, but thanks to a missed flight and then a 12-hour delay in Heathrow I didn’t reach Johannesburg until Sunday evening, when the undertaker was closed.

The next day, Monday, I met my father and my sisters, the Egg and the Kat, at the Kat-House, to go through Marmeee’s clothes and choose something pretty for her to wear. The Kat chose a white blouse with embroidered giraffes that she had given her. We added a pair of cotton capris and some underwear. I vetoed shoes – who wears shoes when you’re lying down? – but insisted on socks to keep her toes warm. The Old Buzzard chose her most beautiful shawl – a big, soft, fringed square in her signature shades of grey, blue and lilac.

On Tuesday the Egg, the Kat and I took the clothes to the undertaker. We asked for a simple pine box and a cremation, definitely no embalming, no fuss. No, we didn’t wish to attend the cremation. But … I took a deep breath. “I would like to see her,” I said. They said they would have her ready for me the following day.

On Wednesday morning my bestie, Twiglet, picked me up. I made her promise to come in with me. “I’m scared,” I told her.

“Don’t be. It’ll be okay – you’ll see,” she replied gently.

“I’ve never seen a human dead body before,” I explained. “And this is my mother!”

“My Mom was my first too,” she said.

At the mortuary, the receptionist called a man in a black suit to lead us to the viewing room. His expression was somber, and it bothered me that he seemed sadder than I was. I was too anxious to be sad. I had absolutely no idea what I would do, how I would react. Would I sob hysterically? Fling myself on her coffin? Laugh – as I so hideously did when I was 12 years old and told my classmates my little dog had died, run over by a car, and they all thought I was an awful person because the only expression my face remembered for days after it happened was a ghastly rictal grin? Our escort opened the door to the viewing room, then stepped back to wait in the hallway, head bowed and hands quietly folded.

The room was bright and spacious, with curved rows of empty seats and large windows. Near the front, resting on a dais, was the coffin – pale, unvarnished pine, with rope handles. Although plain it was nicely made – sturdy, with rounded edges and a few simple carved details. Viewed from the doorway you couldn’t see the coffin shape, and it looked like something my mother might have chosen to keep on her back stoep – an attractive box for storing gardening tools that was also a good height for sitting upon with a cup of tea.

I walked about halfway down the aisle between the chairs, then sat down. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked Twiglet. “I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel.” She just hugged me and waited for me to figure it out. “Okay,” I said at last. “Let’s do this.”

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Things Marmeee loved: Book stores. Coffee shops. The Olde Buzzard. Earrings, like the ones he gave her just before we took this picture.

I marched up to the coffin and looked down into it.

The woman inside was lying with her head tilted back, so that her chin jutted sharply toward the ceiling. She didn’t look entirely comfortable. I wanted to lift her head, tuck a pillow under it … but I didn’t have a pillow. Also, I was worried that if I lifted her head her whole body might rise, rigid as a plank. I don’t know how long rigor mortis lasts, and it didn’t seem appropriate to google it just then.

Her eyes were closed, and her lips were thin and stern. I wondered whether the mortician had used glue to fix them shut.

I touched her cheek. She was icy. I realized that she had been packed in bags of ice, and yanked my mind away from the reason this was necessary. I stroked her hand. It was cold… cold.

Her beautiful shawl had been tucked around her shoulders, but was a little bunched up. I patted it smooth, snugged it around her. I wondered whether I should kiss her, but I really didn’t want to.

I went back to where Twiglet was sitting and plunked down into a seat. “I don’t feel anything,” I said. “She’s not here. That over there -” I gestured toward the coffin. “It’s just an empty envelope.” Twiglet nodded, and hugged me again.

“So … okay. Let’s go,” I said. I stood to leave, but found myself wandering back to the coffin. I felt restless, vaguely ashamed that I didn’t want to cry or wail, angry that something so momentous could happen and leave me bereft of words or feelings.The shawl still didn’t look quite right. I rearranged it again, positioning it so that one of the embroidered giraffes on her blouse was visible.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “She’d be royally pissed at us for burning this shawl.”

Twiglet gave me the side-eye. “I’m sure they’d give it back if you asked them to.”

“No, I don’t want it – it’s not mine to take. But I hope someone steals it before they cremate her. She’d like that – knowing it was making another woman feel pretty.”

“Well,” Twiglet said. “Who knows? This is Africa. Maybe that’s one of the perks of the job.”

We were chuckling as we walked through the door, down the corridor, and out into the sunlit parking lot. Behind us, I knew, machinery had hummed to life and the dais, the coffin and its chilly, empty contents had sunk to the basement, out of sight. But the thought of it no longer scared me. I felt a sense of release. I was glad I had seen her body. It had served her well for many years, and so had earned our gratitude and respect, but she was no longer in it. She had written the letter of her life, signed it “With love”, and had quite clearly moved on.

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Things Marmeee loved: Me

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